Dear ARP: How important is diversity when choosing a school?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I have a question I am hoping to get some help on.  There is currently a full on war at our house in trying to select our 4-year-old son’s school for next year.  We have two sons, the older (4 yr old) was adopted as an infant from Guatemala and the younger is from Ethiopia.  My husband has spoken with many of the African-American families he works with and the majority told him that their children attended a mostly-white school and their friends were for the most part white. From what he said, the kids all had good experiences in grade school and they did not appear to have been singled out because of their color.  I am having trouble relating the experiences of these children to our own family.  I feel that the experience of these children is due in part to the fact that they all had strong and supportive black families at home that provided a strong base for their identity.  While we can read all the books on transracial adoption and provide positive black and Hispanic role models for our children, at the end of the day, we are still white and have never had the experience of being the only black child in a classroom.  Am I totally off base here looking for a school that would provide more diversity?

Jo

From the Editor:

Choosing the right school for a child can be a difficult for any parent. No matter the race of your child, diversity is but one factor to consider among academic and other concerns. Which factor should be paramount? The aggravating thing is that there is really no right answer to that question. They key is determining the right decision for your child and your family at any given point in time.

Few schools are perfect. I think the key to successfully placing your child is determining a school’s weak spots and weighing how successfully your family can make up for them. If a school has a poor sports program, can you make up for that by enrolling your child in community leagues? If a school presents few friends of other races for your child to meet, can you make up for that by living in a diverse area and introducing your child to a variety of friends outside of school? If transportation is an issue, can you band together with other moms and dads and take turns ferrying kids to and from school? Academic weakness is hard to make up for, so that is customarily a parent’s chief concern. 

But ensuring a child is exposed to diverse peoples is also very important, and not just for kids of color. You cannot expect that your white child is learning to respect and understand people of color, if your family rarely sees or interacts with people of other races and cultures. (The same is true of Asian children, black children, Latino children, etc.) Racial sensitivity does not simply develop on its own. It is far too easy for a child to absorb society’s biases without intervention. The post-racial world that everyone is so hungry for will never come to be unless we ensure that each generation lets go of some of the hang-ups of the last. School is one place where we can make that happen. School is the first place children can have important interactions with people who are different from them.

Ensuring that your child develops anti-racist beliefs is just one reason to send him to a racially diverse school. Educational environment can play a large role in developing (or not) a child’s self esteem and identity. This seems to be your concern. And it is a valid one. Even under the best circumstances, it is stressful to be “the only” or even “one of a few.” A child in that situation is subject to the racial biases of the majority. Navigating friendships and eventually dating requires extra effort. Existing in a majority white environment often requires a person of color to concede some of his identity to fit in. It requires a bit of “masking.”* But ultimately, that is the lot of people of color in America. It is not something that you can protect your child from. He will have to learn to navigate these waters. I find it hard to believe that the children of your husband’s co-workers have never been singled out because of their race. More likely, his African American colleagues know from experience that racial prejudice is an unavoidable part of life and have deemed the level of bias their children confront navigable. They find ways to nurture the esteem of their children. They help them find ways to stand up for themselves when necessary. And they help them make the most of the benefits of their situation. This is what you will have to do, no matter where you ultimately send your sons to school. And you are right that it will be more difficult because you cannot share the experience of being a racial minority.

Growing up, I attended nearly all-white schools and nearly all-black schools. I had only a brief experience with an educational environment that I would deem well-mixed racially. My parents, both educators, viewed academic concerns as most important. They sent me to schools where I would get the best academic preparation. And they supported me in dealing with the rest of it: Being the only black girl among a circle of white friends and, later, being the “not black enough” kid in an urban, black school.

My stepson, too, has experienced being the majority and minority in school. For the last three years we have lived in a community and school system that is 95 percent white. My husband and I are pleased with both my son’s current school and his circle of friends. Is the situation perfect? No. Are there racial issues? Yes. Such is life.

I do not share these things to say that my experiences are best, but to illustrate that what will work best for your children is unique and may change over the years.

Jo, whatever choice you ultimately make, I know your little one will be fine. That you recognize the challenges ahead and are determined to be proactive in dealing with them puts you miles ahead of many parents. You should congratulate yourself for that. Readers, what is your advice to Jo?

(See Racialicious and What Tami Said for recent discussions of interracial friendships sparked, in part, by the Miley Cyrus controversy, and the lone Asian young man in a group of white “friends” making a visual slur against Asians.)

Do you have a question for Anti-Racist Parent? Send it to team@loveisntenough.com.

Image courtesy of grahamblackall on Flickr

 

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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